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4-4-2 Vs 3-4-3: Which Is The Best Formation?

4-4-2 vs 3-4-3: Which is the best formation?

Dissecting the 1-3-4-3

The 1-4-4-2 formation has probably been one of the most popular formations in the history of our game, only up until the age of the 1-4-3-3 and later, when the 4-2-3-1 formation became the prominent feature for most coaches. However, there are a variety of systems being played all over Europe, from Diego Simeone, who still favors the 1-4-4-2, Luis Enrique and his Barcelona side religiously arrange themselves within the 1-4-3-3 whereas the special one, Jose Mourinho seems intent on using the 1-4-2-3-1 formation at Manchester United.

However, the unorthodox use of a back three formation recently by one of our countries most innovative and astute technicians has got many tongues wagging. Many have critiqued this and suggested that the change in formation contributed to the teams poor performances.

But let me, before we indulge ourselves with our analysis of the 1-3-4-3 and how different managers have used this formation differently, clarify the distinction between formations and game model, as these two can so easily be misconstrued.

  1. Formation: refers to the way the team has its players set up or positioned on the pitched. Some coaches, allow for flexibility with regards to the movements of their players, encouraging multiple linear organizational schemes to be fluidly created and this makes for a more flexible formational structure created by the movement of players during the match. Pep Guadiola and Jurgen Klopp have continuously referred to formations merely as “telephone numbers” that have with very little influence on their teams performance. For Julian Nagelsmann, another 1-3-4-3 disciple, formations are not of too much importance in the modern game. He says, “it’s just a question of five or ten meters whether it’s a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-2-1; you only see teams adhering to that at kick-off and perhaps eight times during the game”.
  2.  Game model: this refers to the global performance of the team. Influenced by various facets, yet mainly by players profile, teams history and or culture or by the managers tactical principles.
    “To me, the most important aspect in my all my teams is to have a defined game model, a set of principles that provides organization. Therefore, since the first day our attention is directed to establish our principles, sub principles and sub-sub principles.” (Mourinho, 2006)
    Normally, technicians would mention both game model and formation in one conversation and it’s clear that, how coaches chose to position their players on the pitch has a direct correlation with how he wants the team to play in different phases of the game.

So now that we have clarified a minor technicality, let’s get back to the intriguing dialogue that’s been going around, of playing with a back three formation. It’s important to note that this isn’t such a new global phenomenon as is made out to be here in our local game. Roberto Martinez, current Belgium National team manager, already predicted this evolution in 2012, “In a few year’s time, there will be a lot of teams playing a 3-4-3, believe me,” Martinez says. “And we’ll have to be able to change, to adapt to it. And that is why it’s so important that players are flexible tactically.”

This was at a time while he was still manager at Wigan after the 2010/2011 English Premier league season. And as if he had known, the system seems to have found its way back. Even newer variations appear to be emerging particularly due to the demand for a more offensive and possession orientated approach. Pep has also used a three man defensive formation, not only with Manchester City recently, but also at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Thomas Tuchel at Dortmund seems to be plugging away with the same formation. Hoffenhiem’s young technician, Nagelsmann, has guided his unfancied Hoffenheim side to an unbeaten start in the current campaign with a flexible 1-3-3-3-1 formation. Antonio Conte is dominating the Premier League with some sublime performances from Chelsea this season using the 1-3-4-3. Jorge Sampaoli is guiding an impressively structured Sevilla back into one of La Liga’s powerhouses using a similar formation.

Slaven Bilic, Marichio Pocheticcino and Ronald Koeman have all begun experimenting with the same formation in recent matches. Martinez himself is using it with the Belgian national team.
In an old interview, while still with Wigan in the Premier League, Martinez spoke in depth with regards to the 1-3-4-3 he was using; “When you play a 4-3-3, you rely a lot on the full-backs to get high up the pitch. You shouldn’t look at a system as away to win a football match, it is the players that play the system. At Wigan, I have Maynor [Figueroa], Gary [Caldwell] and Antolin [Alcaraz] who have been so solid with a back three, and it allows [other] players to be high up the pitch, like the wing-backs. They aren’t full-backs that need to get deep and then forward to give us an extra man, they are in positions where they can do both a little bit better, and we can be a little bit more solid defensively.

“The difference is the width that we get…before, we had to compromise a little bit, when you want to be very attack-minded, the full-backs have to push on, so you leave two players at the back. Now you’re still pushing the wing-backs on, but you’ve still got three players at the back, plus probably a midfielder. In the West Brom game, as Paul Scharner will tell you, we were attacking with seven, eight, nine players and they were surprised it, and that’s what the system gives you, without being weak at the back to face counter attacks.”

“It suits our players. When you’ve got a Jean Beausejour who is a specialist in that position, you take advantage of that. The back three gives you that. Then there’s the energy we’ve got in midfield, players who can play between lines like Shaun Maloney and Jordi Gomez. It’s so difficult to play against…there’s a few clubs playing it around Europe now, Napoli are one: they play it with Cavani, Hamsik and Lavezzi…this is the advantage of this system – it goes where the danger is…it’s not in defensive lines, it’s not working as a unit of four, it’s not man-marking.”

In this quote Martinez raises three important tactical influences that could be the reason as to why the formation seems to be so popular amongst technicians;

The balance the formation seems to provide with regards to not only providing the offensive team with width but also still maintaining numerical superiority in central areas to create a multiple linear structure, which has several benefits for the offensive teams.

The overloading of the central area allows for more control and stability through the occupation of the half spaces which not only provides huge offensive advantages but also seems to give more benefits defensively as it allows for better counter pressing with an increase in numbers when trying to restrict teams from exploiting the space on counter attacks

The use of technical specialists who seek to gain positional superiority in advanced areas on the pitch, can also be manipulated with intelligent occupation of the pitch, with the aim of isolating opponents when overloads have been created. This is clearly the intention, particularly when you hear how Pep’s teams overload

The most intriguing part of the formation is, naturally, is the back three. While it may still be only on an experimental basis here in South Africa, also to be noted that it’s been mainly for defensive reasons, many teams and coaches in Europe have found great success with playing with a back three.
Pep and Conte have been two of the strong believers in this formation yet both use very distinct versions of the formation. compared to clearances, blocks and aerial duels won:

José Mourinho (left) and Antonio Conte (right)

José Mourinho (left) and Antonio Conte (right)

Conte version

Whereas Guardiola play a more possession orientated and attacking style of 1-3-4-3 or 1-3-3-3-1, which we we dissect later, Conte’s Chelsea play a more conventional three at the back but with the more traditional use of wing backs. Conte played a 1-3-5-2 system at Juventus, where he had a back three of Bazargli, Bonucci and Chiellini, with Asamoah and Lichtsteiner as wingbacks. However, at Chelsea different circumstances may have triggered this change of formation, maybe the most obvious being Chelsea’s lack of quality centre backs. Cahill and David Luiz have both struggled defensively while in a four at the back, and also possibly the recruitment wing back Marcos Alonso may also have influenced the change.

The interesting thing about the formation is that Conte has made it work in two very different guises. There is the extremely defensive, counter-attacking shape, that is effectively a 1-5-4-1, with the wing backs dropping back to reinforce the defensive block when the team is out of possession. Although his has always been a common trend, mentioned even by the technical study group at the last World Cup, we have seen how effective this approach has been, particularly for smaller teams, who employ a three/five-man defence that allows them to retreat into their defensive third and create a reinforced defensive block that allows them to control space while allowing their opponents control of the ball.

This approach has seen Conte use Moses and Alonso as the wingbacks, while Kante and Matic are employed as pivots in front of the back three. The teams defensive solidity, has had both offensive and defensive spin offs. It has allowed Hazard and Pedro to be less engaged in their defensive scheme but offensively it has meant that they and also not the ones responsible for keeping the width, allowing them to dominate central areas, occupy the half spaces and make penetrative movements from more advanced positions in linking up with Costa. It seems that Conte wants the two to move into more central positions with the wingbacks’ keeping the width to allow for depth and penetrating options in wide areas. Another difference is the way they defend. Guardiola wants his players in advanced central positions to regain the ball higher and immediately in his counter pressing approach, while Conte wants to play a 1-5-4-1 in defence, to reinforce the teams defensive structure and to be resolute and hard to exploit.

Victor Moses of Chelsea

Victor Moses of Chelsea

Guadiola version

Pep is perceived as an offensive coach, yet in many interviews with players who have been managed by him, have stated that he probably spends more team working on his teams defensive organization than he does fine turning his teams offensive principles. This highlights probably why he strongly believes that your defensive organization mirrors your offensive intentions and each phase of the game mirrors the other. The importance of this statement we shall elaborate on later.
Guardiola first started experimenting with a three at the back at Barcelona but it became a more prominent feature at Bayern, when he used both Lahm and Alaba in various positions, including as Inverted Fullbacks. At Manchester City, the three at the back has also been used. Usually, the three are Otamendi, Stones and Kolarov, with Fernandinho playing a similar role to both Busquets and Alonso as a Regista linking defence and midfield.

A back three is no longer just used as a defensive organisational structure. Many teams now only play with one striker up front, this creates a 3:1 structure and potentially provides lateral centre backs with possibilities to dominate the halves spaces and allow for quicker final third entries as there is more space and time for them due to their numerical and positional superiority. I have already anticipated the introduction of “inverted centre halves” in football in the next few years and this will start happening due to the need for wingers to give their teams more offensive depth and exert more pressure on teams with reinforced defensive structures.

Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola

Playing with three at the back also allows Guardiola to use a more narrower and compact four in the centre of midfield. Fernandinho and Gundogan are the deep-lying playmakers players/ pivots, while De Bruyne and Silva act as number 10’s trying to get in between the lines. Pep also favours conventional wingers, rather than the orthodox wing backs used by Conte and that have been most commonly associated with the three at the back. Sterling/Navas and Sane/Nolito are always in advanced wide positions and stay wide in order to stretch the compact defensive shape of the opposition, to create space for the two number 10’s, either inside or in the wide areas.

Guardiola is just obsessed with his teams structure and tactics as Conte yet Pep believes in having numbers in the centre to counter press effectively and immediately, so as to dominate possession, whereas Conte has numbers centrally to reinforce the centre and make his team more resolute and difficult to break down, allowing them to be well set up for the counter attack. Also for Pep, the lateral center halves, normally Otamendi and Kolarov, are players with the technical comfort on the ball and give the team more stability and fluidity in building from the back and effectively moving the team into its consolidation phase. This is because, in a two-man centre half pairing, both centre halves are more central, making it easier for the offensive players to press them. However, with a three-man defence, the lateral centre halves can receive the ball, in half spaces and have significantly more space while receiving the ball in more angled positions to allow for better distribution options.

And this is possibly the most interesting feature of employing a 1-3-4-3; how difficult it seems to be for teams to be able to deal with it. The most intriguing example being how in the first half, Manchester United could not seem to press Manchester City during their build up- Bravo would look to play the ball out to his three centre-backs, so City could find stability and rhythm in their possession when they got opportunities to establish play from the back. United wanted to stop them from building play from the back, Lingard and Mkhitaryan struggled in deciding who to press between the lateral centre halves and the wingers. A few unbalanced situations were created when they would press either one of the lateral centre halves and would then give Bravo possibilities to find the wingers and this would then create 2 v 1 situations. If the Man United full-backs came out to the City’s wingers, then their number 10’s would take wing play and find easy access into the dead zone behind their fullbacks.
For 45 minutes, Jose Mourinho couldn’t press City’s 1-3-4-3 with a 1-4-3-3 until in the second half where they used Felliani and Pogba higher up the pitch, closer to Ibrahimovic and this allowed them to have a spare man in the centre of midfield (Herrera) and made it easier for them to shift across the pitch to overload on City’s wingers.

Paul Pogba of Manchester United

Paul Pogba of Manchester United

Another major part of why it seems so difficult to deal with this formation has to be it’s irregularity. It may seem that part of the reason that many teams have struggled to deal with the formation could be due to the unfamiliar arrangements presented by its structure. For an example, many wingers are taught how to deal, both offensively and defensively, against fullbacks, in relation to a number of different scenarios and reference points; such as where his team mates positioned? Where the ball is located? Where is the oppositions behind him are situated? And when there’s an irregularity with regards to his normal points of reference, it removes his automized behavioral initiation and creates uncertainty which then brings less structured defensive reactions from the winger.

Amongst more in-depth technical discussions relating to any formation, and particularly the 1-3-4-3 and it’s various adaptations, there is a lot of detail behind the work of technicians than just simply ‘doing something different’. With the three at the back becoming more and more popular in modern football, my prediction is that it is only a matter of time before it seeps into the Premier Soccer League too.

That being said, the job of a coach is becoming extremely complex and is more than just formations, tactics and training. And mainly also because of the direction society, at large is taking, i.e. The technological advancements and power of social media have put a lot more demands on coaches and there’s an evolution taking place and modern technicians have to step up and be more than just mere tacticians and motivational speakers. An interesting statement was made recently by Nagelsmann. “Thirty per cent of coaching is tactics, 70% social competence,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung in August 2016.

Every player is motivated by different things and needs to be addressed accordingly. At this level, the quality of the players at your disposal will ensure that you play well within a good tactical set-up – if the psychological condition is right.

This statement highlights a very interesting point relating to the direction the game is taking; no matter how much talk we can have regarding formations, game models and the like, the future generation of technicians, who have ambitions of being extremely successful, will have to be more than just diligent students of the game!

Buckle up… the revolution has begun.

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